More Guidance, Please

By Mario Fraioli

As far as doping excuses go, it’s hard to beat Tyler Hamilton’s “vanishing twin” alibi or LaShawn Merritt blaming a positive test on a “male enhancement product,” but U.S. 400m runner Gil Roberts’ explanation that he tested positive for probenecid, a masking agent, because his girlfriend, Alex Salazar—who ingested Moxylong, containing probenecid, which was given to her by a local “chemist” in “semi-rural” area of India—kissed him “frequently and passionately” upon her return to the U.S., thus contaminating his urine sample, is one of the more laughable ones I’ve come across in recent memory. What’s not funny is Roberts was found to be without fault by Arbitrator John Charles Thomas, who concluded:

“But here Roberts had dated Ms. Salazar for two years and surely had kissed her before without being charged with a doping violation. Thus, for Roberts, it must have been like lightning out of a clear blue sky for him to learn that by kissing his girlfriend this time that he was exposing himself to a prohibited substance. Roberts has met his burden of proof. Roberts has explained to the satisfaction of this Arbitrator how the probenecid entered his system and that he was without fault.”

Seriously(?!), I give up.

While we’re on the topic of doping, here’s a story about Eric Thompson, a standout high school high jumper who tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, after taking a “small bump” of the drug at a party in 2007. Thompson received a two-year ban from USADA, which an arbitrator reduced to one year after concluding his “youth and inexperience with anti-doping rules were ‘relevant mitigating circumstances in the case of a young athlete with no available informed guidance,” before WADA stepped in and appealed the ruling (to no avail). Despite the reduced ban, Thompson missed an NCAA drug test over spring break (which counts as a positive and landed him a two-year suspension anyway), never returned to competition, and saw his Olympic evaporate into a downward spiral of depression, drinking and drug use.

“It seemed absurd to Thompson that a bump of cocaine that seemingly had no effect on him two days before the meet would jeopardize his college scholarship and athletic future,” Aaron Gordon writes for Vice“He knew it would carry consequences, but couldn’t imagine it ruining his career.” 

This is a unique case and a sad story on many levels that exposes the messiness, complexity (and ambiguity) of doping, drug-testing protocols, suspensions and the such. Perhaps the biggest takeaway—or reinforcement, rather—is that there clearly needs to be more education and greater accountability administered by organizations like the NCAA and USADA, especially at the high school and collegiate levels, to better help athletes fully understand anti-doping rules, testing expectations and protocols (e.g. what happens if you miss a test), as well as the consequences of their actions (whether intentionally performance-enhancing or not). More “available informed guidance,” if you will (but look, we have a handbook!)…

…which brings us to the case of 60-year-old race walker Scott McPherson, who tested positive for an exogenous androgenic anabolic steroid at the 2017 Masters Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, N.M., landing him a four-year ban. Now, it’s possible McPherson may have cheated intentionally so he could brag to his buddies back in Texas that he won a national age-group title or he may have just been doing what many other men his age do, but it doesn’t matter to USADA because they provide “comprehensive instruction on its website on the testing process and prohibited substances, how to obtain permission to use a necessary medication, and the risks and dangers of taking supplements as well as performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.”

Available guidance? Ahh, sure. Informed? That’s a stretch.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.